Researchers test new approach to fighting fires; critics say it could delay victim rescue

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NORTHBROOK, Illinois — A groundbreaking study in Illinois could change the way firefighters attack the hottest and most dangerous fires. The Milwaukee Fire Department is taking part in the study, but a retired New York City battalion chief says the researchers are all wet.

It may sound elementary, but scientists in suburban Chicago are studying whether applying water on a fire from the outside should come before search and rescue on the inside.

"It's an inherently dangerous profession," says Erich Roden, battalion chief for the Milwaukee Fire Department. "Our ethos and our mission is to get inside that building as quickly as possible to rescue those trapped civilians."

Steve Kerber is director of the Fire Science Research Institute at UL, which invited firefighters from all over the world to witness a one-of-a-kind experiment.

Steve Kerber is director of the Fire Safety Research Institute at UL, which invited firefighters from all over the world to witness a one-of-a-kind experiment.

Roden is on the advisory board for Underwriters Laboratories, which recently invited firefighters from around the world to witness a first-of-its-kind experiment. Not just a controlled burn, but a live fire inside a fully-furnished, 1,200 square foot house, with temperature sensors, oxygen sensors, air flow sensors and video cameras.

"We couldn't make measurements like this 30, 40 years ago," said Steve Kerber, director of UL's Fire Safety Research Institute. "Now we can."

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of us in the fire service to see it through other people's eyes," said John Chubb, a member of the Dublin Fire Brigade from Dublin, Ireland.

The tests are being driven, in part, by the way most homes have changed.

"There is a lot more synthetic material in our homes today, which means fires burn hotter and faster than they did 30 or 40 years ago," says John Drengenberg, a spokesman for UL. "This means you have less time to escape."

It also means that by the time firefighters get to a burning building, the fire may already be nearing its most dangerous point -- a sudden, dramatic combustion event known as flashover.

"It used to take upwards of 20 to 30 minutes for a room to reach flashover stage. Now it's down to as few as seven or eight minutes," said Lloyd Bertram with the New Berlin Fire Department.

To prevent firefighters from getting trapped, UL is studying an alternative method of attack.

"A standard attack would involve usually going right through the front door, getting inside and searching for occupants," Kerber said.

UL equipped a 1,200 square foot building with thousands of sensors to conduct the tests.

UL equipped a 1,200 square foot building with thousands of sensors to conduct the tests.

Instead, they're employing what's known as a transitional attack that starts outside.

"The occupants are on the inside, so the firefighters want to get to the inside as quickly as possible. But if the fire isn't under control, that opening in the door can make the fire larger and now you are in a situation where you could potentially be making things worse for me inside," Kerber said.

Hartland Fire Chief Dave Dean describes how his crews used transitional attack on a suburban garage fire.

"The fire was extremely hot. A lot of flames. Huge fire ball," Dean said.  "Before we were able to send anybody into that structure, we were able to cool the fire by a large diameter hose attack line outside... then entering the structure. It worked like clock-work."

In the fire service, they call that "hitting it hard from the yard."

"I don't fight fires like that," said John Salka, a retired battalion chief for the New York City Fire Department. "I am not a scientist, but I have done some experiments myself. Like about 30,000 experiments. I've been to a lot of fires."

Salka says experience tells him there's no time to waste.  In 2012, he wrote an opinion piece for Firehouse magazine titled, "Transitional Attack Is Whack."

"Any minute that you delay going in to find a victim in a building puts them at greater risk," he said.

A standard attack usually involves a team going inside the building to knock down fire and search for victims. Transitional attack starts by hitting the fire from the outside before moving in.

A standard attack usually involves a team going inside the building to knock down fire and search for victims. Transitional attack starts by hitting the fire from the outside before moving in.

In addition to delaying search and rescue, there's another concern among old-school firefighters.

"The conventional teaching was that if you put water on a fire before you have had a chance to actually rescue a victim, you are, in essence, steaming that victim," Bertram said.

"Am I doing what my grandfather taught me 30 years ago?" Kerber asked a room full of firefighters.

He says science is proving that theory wrong.

"It allows temperatures to cool off quickly, heat flux to go down, [and it's] more survivable for occupants faster. The numbers don't lie," Roden said.

Salka is not convinced.

"They set all these beautiful controlled conditions up, do an experiment and then write down with their little pencils the results and say, `look what happened. Look what happened. Look what happened,'" Salka said.

Fire Charts

With the exception of the 2001 terrorist attacks, civilian fire deaths have steadily declined over the past 40 years across the US, while firefighter deaths have remained relatively unchanged.

He worries that the new approach is being driven by a desire among firefighters for self-preservation.

"It certainly is a lot easier and a lot safer to be out there than inside," Salka said.

"Firefighters are very much at risk today," Drengenberg acknowledges.

Data obtained by FOX6 News from the US Fire Administration shows civilian fire deaths have steadily declined over the past 40 years, but firefighter deaths have remained the roughly the same.

"So this research is focused on how to keep firefighters safe," Drengenberg said.

"I'm fairly certain that it is designed to assist and protect firefighters, rather than civilians," Salka said.

UL's research will show what happens to fire and the heated gases inside a room when water is applied from the outside first.

UL's research will show what happens to fire and the heated gases inside a room when water is applied from the outside first.

Milwaukee's Erich Roden says they're trying to do both.

"What we are learning here is a much more rapid application of water is going to allow us to get in there and rescue occupants much quicker and it is safer for the victim and for ourselves," he said.

Salka remains skeptical.

"I am afraid the fire service is going to embrace and run with this and adapt and adopt it too quickly," Salka said.

For some, the retired FDNY chief represents the stubborn old guard of the fire service.

"Change a lot of times is difficult in the fire service," Dean said.

"It is part of human nature to resist change," Chubb said.

"We're very attached to the way we have always done things," Roden said.

But the director of UL's research says it's not  their place to tell firefighters how to do their jobs.

"What we are going for is informing them," Kerber said.

When the right approach is a matter of life and death, they just want to put the data behind the decision. The tests conducted by UL back in March are part of a three-year study that's expected to be published later this year (2016). Fire departments can then use that information to determine the best approach for protecting their own personnel as well as victims who may be trapped inside a burning building.

17 comments

  • Rick Sidebottom

    There is some new products (water additives) that leave no residue, are no more corrosive than the water it is put in, puts fire out faster and keeps steam to a minimum and cools the atmosphere faster. my favorite is called F-500 Encapsulator Agent made by Hazard Control Technologies (www.hct-world.com). I have used this with great success in stopping wildfires. Others testing the products have had great success in interior fire attacks.

    • Neil

      Agree, that technology has been around for quite a long time. They make fire extinguishing equipment that sprays a fluid that is not conductive for use in electronics facilities, like radio and TV stations, archives and data centers. This clear liquid was actually demonstrated on Channel 6 many years ago, and is extremely effective in putting out fires. The liquid was able to snuff a fire in around a 100 to 1 ratio, with 1 being water!. For all the money we put into fire trucks, hoses and hydrants, we would be much better off investing in new technology that is much safer and puts out fires quicker. I trust UL, rarely are they wrong. But use good judgement on the site of a fire, and yes, preventing fires is always the best solution.

      • Rick Sidebottom

        F-500 Encapsulator Agent works very well on class A fires in ratio’s all the way down to 1/2% or 99 1/2% water. I know some people will call it hype but in the testing that I have done I have seen almost immediate reduction in black smoke production, radiated heat while using much less water.

  • Short Handed FF

    This is not a “one tactic fits all” approach and needs to be understood when it appropriate. Conversely, not all departments have the luxury of 5 apparatus and 30 personnel on first alarm. The nature of firefighting involves calculated risks for victim survival. However, the safety of the crew is first and foremost.

    • Truck Guy

      ”’The safety of the crew is first and foremost” WRONG The safety of civilians is first and foremost.In many cases you are their last and only hope.They are the ones you took an oath to protect and if you are not willing to put your life on the line for them then you are in the wrong profession.

      • Short Handed FF

        Sorry Truck Guy.
        I did not take an oath to die on the job. I will use calculated risks to effect a rescue and protect my crew.
        Should you understand the incident priorities 1) Life Safety ( personnel first, then civillians), 2) Incident stabilization, 3) preservation of property.
        I am not in the wrong profession, dinosaurs are.

    • Truck Guy

      Dinosaur ?If Putting the citizenry ahead of all others makes you a dinosaur than count me in.When I see someone accusing other firemen of being dinosaurs,it is almost always by guys who are long in book learning and gathering certifications and short on actual firefighting experience.My mantra when doing a risk assessment at a fire scene was to always look at it first from the potential victims point of view.Their risk almost always turned out to be 100% to the bad side.If myself or another crew on scene did not take decisive action even at their own peril what chance did they have? If my family or friends and loved ones were hopelessly trapped I would expect the same.The “everyone goes home “ tag line that is so en vogue today should apply to the victim first and those committed to their profession second.

      • Mkedoc8855

        Typical “trickle” response. You would be the same dolt that wants to fly 90mph across the city lights flashing, siren wailing for a 25 year old with “abdominal pain.” Why should your safety and that or your crew come first? Because of you go down, the victim is certainly doomed, and so is the numerous crews that have to go in and look for your burning corpse. Common sense Risk vs. Reward.

  • Mark Emert

    I have to say that I tend to agree with Chief Salka more than I disagree. I look at “transitional attack” as more of a tool, much like positive pressure attack. I haven’t been to 30,000 fires but I’ve been to my share over the past 30+ years and I think what we need to be doing is teaching & training our officers to evaluate the conditions and make attack decisions based on their findings rather that have their actions dictated by someone in a laboratory or office. JMHO!

  • Greg Smith

    This is not a new tactic, I have been in the Fire Service (WEST COAST) for over 40 years, as with any tactic used, it depends on conditions. Anything that improves the “living” conditions in the structure, will increase the chances of finding a trapped person alive. A quick combination attack when warranted and sufficient personnel are present does not reduce the chances of rescue and improves conditions for both those needing rescue and the personnel performing rescue. Tradition Vs Progress, I recall when no one wore breathing apparatus, because it took “too long to put on”….

  • Mike Kane

    What ever happened to venting a fire??? Get the roof open over the fire, attack with charged lines,and have rescue or ladder companies do searches. Smoke and heat vent thru the roof openings, cooler temps and better disability make interior work somewhat better. Stop brushing experience away like it’s a liability

    • Short Handed FF

      Those are great tactics provided that you have the personnel available. Too many people are misconstruing the actual application of a transitional attack to apply to every fire. It is another tool in the toolbox to be used under the right conditions. We just experimented with this tactic at our local training facility and observed the effects. Granted this was in a masonry structure with NFPA 1403 fire loading requirements. We experimented with various applications rates of water from 15 seconds to 5 seconds. Even at the 5 second rate of water application the fire was knocked down to the effect of a sprinkler head. The fire was reset and allowed for tenable conditions in the fire room. So now the question for non-believers, should sprinklers be removed from buildings for the possibility of creating unsafe conditions for victims ? Take it for what it is. A tactic for the right conditions, including available personnel.

    • Neil

      Venting a fire takes too long. You are asking firefighters to bust through a roof, which often has many layers of shingles or metal. Try burning plastic once. Plastic burns very quickly. Fires in new homes are often the result of burning plastic not burning wood. It goes very quickly, much like a grease fire out of control. Hot coals don’t get water hot enough, especially in the volume used by firefighters. Steam inhalation is usually not the cause of death, it is smoke inhalation. I personally have always questioned how people are able to sleep with their house on fire, but that is beside the point. Many modern homes and buildings have isolated floors, where there could be a fire in the basement and you wouldn’t be able to smell the smoke on the first or second floor. There again, one has to decide whether water would benefit or cause a collapse.

  • Fire Dude

    I have a lot of respect for Chief Salka and the FDNY but I also have a lot of respect for UL and all those inolved with these tests. Even some of the Chief’s own brothers disagree with him and are out talking about this as another tool. Unfortunately, Chief Salka is showing the closed mindedness of “any” change along with many of his cohorts in the fire service. He automatically puts it down as even an option. My guess is the Chief also put down SCBA’s, bunker pants and other things liket that when they first came out. Chiefl Salka’s view is being very narrow minded as he has never lived in the real world where we don’t have fire stations on every block so limited staffing whether fulltime or volunteer. So what happens if it is so hot that the FF go down before finding the victim or can’t even get to the victim? The victim dies. If with the new contents, fires double about every 30 seconds, that means with no water applied while it takes 1-2 minutes (at least) to find the victim, that fire grew by 2-4 times. So then what happens to the victims when the fire gets bigger and hotter? Or… Take a minute to do a quick cool down and the fire does not grow, so may “continue” to be surviveable. Again, it is a tool.. period. US fire service… 200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress….

    • Colorado Fire Dude

      We have to remember these are just tools in our tool boxes. Get the info, make informed choices. Ultimately, like most things we do, this falls into the category of “You’re trained, you’re experienced- now use both your training and experience to figure this out and do what’s best”. I see no reason for Chief to knock this – get the facts, make an informed decision, live with the consequences. Lather / rinse / repeat. I like the comment about tradition tho, Dude – how very (sadly) accurate.

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